This is my Wednesday column on Vernon Davis.
SANTA CLARA – Vernon Davis has the 49ers in a helpless position, like a turtle trapped on its back.
Davis can stay away and let the turtle squirm – miss mini-camps and training camp, hurt the offense and make the 49ers look bad – or he can flip the turtle over. It’s up to Davis.
He’s watching the turtle flail its little legs right now while the sun sizzles its stomach. Davis didn’t attend the 49ers’ OTAs, forfeited a $200,000 bonus not to go to them. Before he does any flipping, he wants a contract extension.
Does he deserve one?
You can make an argument he does not: He still has two years left on his current deal. He will earn $9 million total in base salary the next two seasons. He will be 32 when his contract expires. He is not a good route runner or a true factor in the red zone. He never has been coached up to develop the skills of a true Pro Bowl tight end. Brent Jones or Raymond Chester or David Casper would have taken Davis to school.
Davis wasted so much talent.
And yet, he still is one of the most athletic players in the NFL. And he is the most important player on the 49ers’ offense right now – more important than Anquan Boldin or Frank Gore or Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers absolutely need Davis to win the Super Bowl next season.
Davis makes the 49ers’ entire offense work. The Niners’ offense is so much easier to defend when he is not part of it. He’s the only deep threat the Niners have, the only fast receiver on the team. The hare on a team full of turtles.
If he’s not on the field, defensive backs have no fear of getting beaten deep so they can move closer to the line of scrimmage and take away the 49ers’ running game. They also can squat on the 49ers’ short and intermediate routes and take those away, too. Complete congestion. Davis’ speed opens up everything.
Davis wasn’t always this essential to the 49ers’ offense. Two seasons ago, the Niners had other fast players – Delanie Walker and Randy Moss. But those players are gone, replaced by Stevie Johnson and Anquan Boldin – a couple of turtles.
Last season, Davis was so essential that Kaepernick had a 117 passer rating when targeting him. That’s a better rating than Drew Brees had targeting Jimmy Graham last season, and a better rating than Peyton Manning had targeting Wes Welker. Including the playoffs, the 49ers were 13-1 in games that Davis caught a touchdown pass last season, and 2-4 in games when he didn’t catch a touchdown pass.
It was painful to watch the 49ers’ passing game without Vernon Davis during Tuesday afternoon’s OTA. During last year’s OTAs, Davis was good for at least one touchdown per practice. Sometimes he caught three or four TD passes. It didn’t matter who was covering him, Kaepernick would fire the ball deep and Davis would catch it. Easy.
Without Davis on Tuesday, the 49ers didn’t complete a single deep pass. They sure tried, though. Kaepernick threw a deep one to Davis’ backup, Vance McDonald, who dropped it. Let it fall right through his hands. Last season, his rookie season, he caught just nine passes and dropped three. He may improve and become a better, more skillful tight end than Davis one day. But that day won’t be any day soon.
After Tuesday’s practice, Harbaugh tried to explain to the media why the passing game struggled in practice. “Just wasn’t clicking as much today. At the end of practice it picked up a bit, but it was a better day for the defense. I thought our linebackers made some real good plays in the underneath coverage. Corners were breaking on balls, got hands on balls. Same with the safeties, they’re doing a good job anticipating and covering a lot of ground back there. Real pleased from that standpoint.”
Translation: “I’ve got to praise someone.”
When asked how important Davis is to the team, Harbaugh said, “Uh, important. Very important.” And then he laughed.
The 49ers transformed into a turtle at Davis’ mercy the moment they renegotiated Kaepernick’s contract last week. Regardless of how team-friendly Kaepernick’s extension was, the 49ers did it, and it created a precedent. Now, the front office has to deal with the fallout from other players, including but not limited to Davis. All players want more money now and more years tacked onto their contract. If Kaepernick had a case for an extension, Davis has a better case. And the 49ers can’t risk Davis holding out from mini-camps and training camp.
Pay up, turtle.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at email@example.com.